This November, live out this spiritual work of mercy
How to teach your kids to show up for those who are sorrowful.
Beginning with All Saints’ Day and ending with the final leaves falling off the trees before winter, November is a fitting reminder that death is part of the cycle of life. During this month, many churches invite their parishioners to put pictures of deceased loved ones on display. November—somber, gray, and serious—calls us to reflect on how we can bring comfort to those in our midst who have suffered a loss. “Comfort the sorrowful” is one of the seven spiritual works of mercy.
Bring comfort by being present. Maria, mother of two teens, recalls her father’s example: “My dad was big on the spiritual works of mercy. He used to say to us growing up, and he still does, ‘If somebody is in a bind, or sad, or in need of something and you don’t know what to do—do something! Pick up the phone, say something, reach out, act. Show up.’ That to me is what comforting the sorrowful is—it’s showing up for those around us and building each other up.”
Experiencing a friend’s sadness often brings up our own past losses and grief. To be with a sorrowful friend is to show that you value that friend so much that you will take on pain in order to be present.
Patty, a mother of four whose close friend died of cancer last year in her early 40s, call the experiences of being with a dying friend a privilege. “I was blessed to be allowed into the intimate moments of my dear friend’s dying and death. I felt incredibly blessed that she allowed me, in those incredibly powerful weeks, to be present to her and for her,” Patty says. “Throughout that time, however, she always wanted to know about my life. I was often embarrassed to talk about what seemed to be trivial issues. But my friend still wanted to be present to me as well. She wanted to comfort me in return.”
Bring comfort by asking questions. While sometimes a simple presence is enough, other times we may be called to help the person who is sorrowful find their way. Franciscan father Mike Bertram recently met with a young man in his mid-20s. Smart, talented, and personable, he had just called off his wedding to a woman he had been dating since high school. The young woman and her family, angry and hurt, repeatedly insulted and threatened the young man for calling off the wedding.
In a long conversation with Father Bertram, the young man poured out his sad story and the responsibility he had in not breaking up with the young woman earlier and subsequently needed to call off the wedding once it had been planned. “I asked him the question, ‘Have you been able to forgive yourself?’” Bertram says.
“Without hesitation, he shook his head. It opened up another discussion. Before he left that night, I asked if he had ever taken his thoughts and experiences to confession. He said he hadn’t. All of what had been discussed amounted to a great confession. So we closed the night with absolution; his penance is to continue working on forgiving himself. He later told me that our time and discussion together was just what he needed. Sometimes it’s important to listen for the questions that aren’t being asked or addressed.”
Give children a role in comforting. While it is appropriate to shield children from extreme raw grief that they cannot yet understand, most of the time children should be allowed to share in a family’s sad times that are a part of life. A child’s natural inclination to comfort will surface if it is allowed room.
“I am amazed how my 8-year-old, Ethan, has an instinctive ability to comfort at such a young age,” says Jennifer. “He knows when his brother or parents are stressed and tries to help the situation by encouraging a forgiving conversation to happen, offering hugs, or volunteering to help out. I know that it is a parent’s job to offer comfort to their children, but we are blessed to have an 8-year-old who offers unconditional comfort to his family. I feel God’s presence working through him.”
This article was originally published in the November 2013 issue of “At Home with our Faith.”
Image: Jordan Whitt on Unsplash